Those familiar with the parentage
of Herron-Morton newcomer Penn & Palate might have expected something a little tamer from restaurateur John Robertson’s second casually elegant charmer. That’s because the brain automatically registers strictly PG-13 cuisine—like custardy macaroni-and-cheese and the perennially safe breadcrumb-coated Dad’s Crunchy Chicken resting against a mound of garlic mashed potatoes—when it reflects on Robertson’s first restaurant: Irvington’s buttoned-down crowd-pleaser, The Legend. Done up in a clean-lined Craftsman motif, it has been the kind of restaurant you could take home to Mother.
So Penn & Palate’s comparatively out-there dishes come as a surprise. Is that chimichurri drizzled over my sustainably farmed, exquisitely fatty salmon atop roasted cauliflower and lentils? Who came up with the brilliant idea to tuck tender sauteed greens, potatoes, turnips, and yellow curry inside a baby gourd cooked into luscious submission, pierce it with a shard of pastry, and call it a pumpkin potpie? And what kind of magic fryer is calibrated to produce such perfect specimens of pommes frites, their skins-on crunch giving way to such hot, starchy fluffiness that a dipping sauce (house aioli, sherry vinegar, or bleu-cheese yogurt) seems beside the point?
We’re definitely not in Irvington anymore.
Executive chef Bill Julian trained at the Cooking and Hospitality
Institute of Chicago and worked for Robertson at The Legend years ago, before moving to Quincy, Illinois, to help a friend open an upscale bistro. Back in Indy at Penn & Palate, he takes diners on a little adventure, giving elaborate presentation to the simplest things, like a hefty pork chop caramelized in balsamic and its own juices with orange-braised kale to cut the sweetness of apricot chutney. Pillowy dumplings—curious little herbed-bread golf balls in a chewy sheath—soak up all of the flavors on the plate. Lamb chops huddle over a mound of sauteed Brussels sprouts in a pool of white-bean puree, finished with pickled cherries. The short ribs—three hulking blocks of red meat with a smudge of radish butter—sit atop a nest of wilted spinach and fennel, with a rosette of Duchess potatoes to the side, a noble upgrade of the pot-roast dinner.
The space is just as lovely, a street-level corner slip of the historic Piccadilly building carefully restored to its 1920s luster with pale lilac walls, charcoal-gray booths, and wraparound windows that make for a Nighthawks-style photo op when city lights set the busy corner of Pennsylvania and 16th streets aglow. Robertson (along with his wife and partner, Kim) wanted to play up the neighborhood’s artsy history—the restaurant sits across the street from the former Herron School of Art—so he decorated the walls with portraits of local creative types. Legendary Hoosier novelist Dan Wakefield, painter Rita Spalding, and their contemporaries gaze down on you and your grilled-romaine panzanella salad tossed with asparagus and goat cheese. They share the joke with you when yolk squirts out of your fried-egg sandwich: a flavor bomb of tomato jam, bacon, and arugula that is a better choice than the chicken-and-bacon club that is somehow seasoning-challenged.
But he would have done just as well without the forced theme. Penn & Palate seems comfortable enough in its own skin, immune to the trends (not a plank of recycled barn wood in sight) and focused simply on giving folks a pleasantly even-keeled experience, complete with cheerful servers and a daily choice of broth- or cream-based soup.
In the past few years, the urban strip that Penn & Palate calls home has spawned a cluster of respectable dining spots, including Peter George’s Tinker Street, Foundry Provisions, and The Thirsty Scholar. There’s even a neighborhood coffee roaster. You could draw some parallels between this emerging section of Herron-Morton and Irvington circa 2007—the year The Legend opened in an artsy burg that still had a slightly gritty edge. It was, Robertson figured, “A neighborhood that needed a place where people could sit and have dinner.” Now, that sentiment has traveled across town and found a place at a new table.
Penn & Palate
28 E. 16th St., 602-6975
HOURS: Mon.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–10 p.m.,
Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–11 p.m.
This article appeared in the October 2015 Issue.